Sleep Tight My Baby: one take is all it takes for an effective horror short

Pansu Kim, “Sleep Tight My Baby” (2001)

Very devastating film about a teenage girl trapped with a baby and quarrelling parents filmed in one continuous take; much of the film’s effectiveness is achieved simply by the movement of the camera which captures the changing mood of the story, and by the soundtrack which pushes the viewer to imagine the worst simply by the way it sequences an unseen baby’s wails and the sound of water pouring into a bath-tub. Initially the handheld camera moves too quickly for my liking but after Emma the girl sits on the couch and starts talking into her mobile phone, Kim’s control of the camera asserts itself and the camera starts to move more purposefully, flashing about once Mum and Dad charge into the lounge-room yelling at each other; and wildly rotating after they leave the house and the teenager lapses into a depression.

The surprise is that at a critical point in the film, Emma looks into the lounge-room from the corridor and sees a projection of herself dancing while holding the baby (Kim uses identical twins Jessica and Felicity Pell to play the girl) when in fact the viewer is fully aware of where the baby is and what has happened to it. The baby itself is never seen in the film; we only know of its existence because of its off-screen crying, the presence of the stroller and the striped blanket the child is wrapped in. The projection of Emma’s fantasy suggests despair and derangement enough to endanger the baby’s life: the dancing girl could be an angel or demon taking away the child. As if to reinforce this impression, Emma’s parents are seen in separate rooms doing cooking and ironing chores and smiling at their wayward daughter.

Although the film doesn’t look entirely credible in its details – not being seen, the baby must be assumed to be old enough to sit in a stroller yet young enough to be wrapped entirely in a blanket and Emma appears as too well-scrubbed to be a single mum – the tension and horror build up steadily thanks to the soundtrack which includes solo violin and piano melody that become frenzied. The house is made to look claustrophobic and creepy by the camera’s movements and close-ups of toys and other objects strewn about on the furniture seem to increase Emma’s isolation and alienation. The use of black-and-white film permits no warmth that might come from the colour of the furnishings.

A good example of a film whose story emerges from the skilful combination of camera movement in one take, sound and music … and the characters didn’t have to be all that good or sketched out! The twist in the story is that while the major characters dream of or try to escape, only one character can be said to have escaped a dreary domestic situation and unwillingly at that.

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